As Europe’s 19th century merchants, missionaries and mercenaries cut their way through the world, no matter where they came from or where they found themselves, the truest sign of their success was whether they were eating French. Throughout the world, French cuisine had become the quintessential mark of civilisation, and it wasn’t only the French that thought so. Indeed, it had become the chief “escort to European diplomacy”, in the words of Marie-Antoine Carême, the world’s first ‘celebrity chef’.
Carême had in fact personally prepared the ground for the globalisation of French cuisine. Having survived Talleyrand’s challenge to prepare a year’s worth of seasonal dinners without repeating an entrée, and a spell serving Paris’s haute monde including the uncouth Napoleon, he eventually found himself invited abroad to prepare feasts for the likes of George IV in London and Tsar Alexandra I in St. Petersburg. He established a fortune and a reputation for himself, and a widespread appreciation for the beauty, bounty and opulence of the cuisine that he was in the process of transforming into an art form.
This is why a French chef accompanied the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, on his mission to meet Afghanistan’s ruler in Simla in 1837. Monsieur St Cloup was there to preside over a small army of chefs who whirled up lavish breakfasts and dinners for the governor-general’s guests, and marching fodder for the 12,000-strong entourage.
But it wasn’t always thus. At the beginning of the 19th century, the wife of a British army officer passing through Lucknow in India noted that three distinct dinners were served at the nawab’s (nobleman’s) table. Those at the upper end were served food prepared by an English chef. The middle section, where the nawab sat, was graced by a Hindu cook’s fare. Meanwhile those in the lower third were served by a French chef. This seemed a fair reflection of Britain’s recent and decisive sweeping aside of France’s challenge to their hegemony over India.
But France won a separate battle, in large part thanks to Carême himself who had set about refining French cuisine by favouring quality and visual appeal over the brute force of sheer quantity. By the time St Cloup accompanied Lord Auckland on their epic journey, a French chef had become a necessity for any British household within the Raj that wished to distinguish itself. French cuisine had become synonymous with ideas of civilisation, and was heavily favoured by ruling elites all over the world, who were perhaps more comfortable breaking bread with one another than with their own lower ranked nationals.
It wasn’t just the novelty of refinement. The adoption of service à la Russe, with its ordered series of courses, lent itself very well to diplomacy, and the light and often fanciful entrées served to delight all the senses rather than simply loading stomachs before their owners moved on to business. French cuisine proved you really were someone.
Thus when Mexico celebrated their victory over the French in 1862, they dined on French cuisine. When King Rama V of Thailand held state banquets for Western diplomats, he served French cuisine. When the Emperor of Japan invited 800 guests to dinner in his new European style palace in Tokyo in 1889, the chefs prepared French cuisine. The courtiers had been training since 1887 in how to dress and behave at a French dinner, and resist being unnerved by the jangling of silverware on porcelain and obligation to make small talk.
In the case of Japan, France’s specific associations with principles of civilisation can only have served to attract Japan’s attention after the latter’s forced opening by the Americans in 1854. Japan’s mission to adapt Western culture, including cuisine, was carried out under the slogan “civilisation and enlightenment”, underpinned by a military, economic, legal and artistic partnership between France and Japan.
The French chefs were also modernists, embracing new inventions such as canning and modern processes that produced white flour and sugar. Escoffier himself was an advocate of commercially prepared stocks and essences, endorsing Maggi’s ham, anchovy and mushrooms essence. Without canning, French cuisine would scarcely have made it past Denmark.
Thus, when His Highness Nawab Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi V was made ruler of Bahawalpur State in northern India in 1907, a meal of soup, pâté, salmon in béchamel sauce, roast game birds and crème caramel were served in celebration. Aside from the birds, it was all canned. Conversely, without canned asparagus, now popular dishes such as Vietnam’s Sup Meng Tay (crab and asparagus soup) would never have emerged.
And while diplomacy was carried out by jaded diplomats, perhaps France’s truest ambassadors were in the legions of energetic young chefs who found their way out of poverty by training and travelling at the first chance they got. From Mexico to Madras, Turin to Tokyo, the world was hungry to savour what they had to offer.
At first, most of these young cooks came from France and trained in Paris, but they were soon joined by those acquiring their skills in Switzerland, Vienna, London and St. Petersburg. Escoffier claimed to have trained thousands of English cooks in the French style, and all of these in turn diffused their skills wherever in the world they turned up. By the 1890s, London alone counted 5,000 French cooks.
And as they went, they were assisted by another device whose attractions Carême had transformed, the cookbook. They were supported too, by a small army of waiters, butchers and bakers who set up shop in all the far-flung posts of the world. By the end of the 19th century, one could put on as good a do in Tokyo and Saigon as in Toulouse or Strasbourg.
And sometimes things just got all mixed up. Wherever it found itself, French cuisine was adapted to local tastes, often with the quiet addition of a few spices or herbs. In Algeria, l’Art de Bien Cuisiner (1933) set out specifically to give instructions on French cooking using local ingredients. Le Guide du Francais Arrivant en Indochine (1935) similarly added a few exotic flourishes to French cuisine (alongside setting out the prerequisites for successful integration, namely a serious professional background, an incontestable entrepreneurial spirit, a patient character and a highly developed sense of justice with which to moderate one’s own attitudes).
Thus we have Russian salads and beef stroganoff. Moussaka and lasagne are manifestations of the trend for adding béchamel sauce to anything to “frenchify” it. The Siamese played with chicken chaudfroid to create a visually identical dish made with minced chicken, lemongrass and coconut agar-agar. Even Escoffier got in on the game, knocking up an emincé de volaille au curry, which is just chicken in béchamel sauce with a smidge of curry powder.
However, as with salt, it paid to be judicious. The Hawaiian king who decided it was necessary to join the big boys by serving a French feast for his coronation, which in turn necessitated the construction of a palace and procurement of expensive linens and porcelains at a cost of $360,000, didn’t take long to find himself turfed out with a republic installed in his place.
But even today, while the French language has lost its supremacy as the lingua franca of diplomacy and we are all richer and closer through the globalisation of cuisines from all over the world, any of which is capable of being just as grand, French cuisine retains a unique capacity to endow any occasion with a certain otherness - a legacy of an adventurous past that we hope may never be lost.